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Overt and covert actions

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English ships routing Spanish Armada at Gravelines, 8 August 1588
Painting: Philippe de Loutherbourg, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

On 28 May, 1588, the 155 ships of the Spanish Armada sailed for the English Channel to pick up the Spanish Army in the Netherlands and invade Britain with 55,000 men. The Spanish king intended to force the independent English to return to the Church of Rome and to end British support for the Dutch, who were fighting for their freedom from the Spanish.

On 19 July the Armada was sighted off the Lizard in Cornwall, and beacons were lit, blazing into the night sky to carry the news to London.

That same night, the 55 ships of the English Navy set out in pursuit. John Hawkins had designed small, speedy ships for the Navy, and had armed them with long-range cannon.

The Spanish anchored off Calais, not far from their army at Dunkirk. They were in a tightly-packed, impregnable crescent formation.

At midnight, 28 July, the English under Sir Francis Drake sent fireships filled with pitch, gunpowder, and tar against the Spanish galleons. Terrified of fire, many of the Spanish ships scattered.

Outgunned and outnumbered, the English fleet prepared for battle. This was not the first time that Brits would defend their country against invasion, and it would not be the last -

Battle of Stourmouth, 885 (Alfred the Great defends Britain from Viking invasion)
Battle of Brunanburh, 937 (Defence against Viking invasion)
Battle of Damme, Flanders, 1213 (Defence against French invasion)
Battle of Winchelsea, 1350 (Defending English shipping from Spain’s piratical attacks)
Spanish Armada, 1588
Battle of Beachy Head, 1690 (Defending against France, which had declared war)
Battle of Quiberon Bay, 1759 (Defending against French invasion of Scotland)
Glorious First of June, 1794 (Defence against France after France declared war)
Blockade of Napoleon’s invasion fleet, 1804
Battle of Trafalgar, 1805 (Defeating combined French-Spanish invasion fleet)
World War I, 1914 - 1918 (Defending against German and Austro-Hungarian aggression)
World War II, 1939 – 1945 (Defending against Nazi German invasion and aggression)
Cold War, 1950 - 1990 (Defending against Communist USSR)
Falklands Conflict, 1982 (Defending against Argentine aggression)

The Spanish ships did not dare to move closer to Flanders because the Dutch had thoughtfully removed all the sea-marks that indicated shoals. On 8 August 1588, the English fleet approached the Spanish Armada at Gravelines.

The Spanish loosed their heavy shot, but their guns were unwieldy, and their gunners had been trained to board ships, not reload. The English ships stayed out of range, then closed, firing repeatedly and sending damaging broadsides into the Spanish ships.

Meanwhile, in England, a force of 4,000 soldiers gathered at West Tilbury, Essex, to defend the estuary of the River Thames and London. On 8 August, Queen Elizabeth went to Tilbury to encourage her forces,

I have come amongst you as you see, at this time, not for my recreation and disport, but being resolved in the midst and heat of the battle to live or die amongst you all, to lay down for my God and for my kingdom, and for my people, my honour and my blood, even in the dust. . .

At sea, the English had damaged the Armada, but they were running out of ammunition. The Armada backed away northward. With their shot lockers almost empty, the English courageously pursued, harrying the Spanish fleet in a desperate effort to keep it away from the Spanish Army. Four days later the English had driven the Spanish to the Firth of Forth, and the Spanish galleons escaped around Scotland only to be wrecked in a hurricane off the West Coast of Ireland.

The Spanish Armada was an overt action against England and the English people and could be repelled with courage, nautical and design skills, strategy and considerable luck. The European Union is a covert action against Britain and the British people. It is far more difficult to defend against it, but not impossible by a long shot.

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